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Second Thought About the Idea of “Consensus”

Sarah Chaffee


“Consensus science.” That is a phrase you hear invoked a lot, as if identifying a “consensus” should be enough to settle any scientific question. But sometimes scientists do not, in fact, follow the evidence. The consensus, then, could be wrong.

In an article for Quilette, Professor Jonathan Anomaly at the University of Arizona writes, “I want to explore some explanations for why we might be justified in believing a hypothesis that scientists shy away from even when that hypothesis is consistent with the best available evidence.”

He gives examples of situations where people reach conclusions based on extrinsic factors, leading them to mistaken conclusions. Take Super Bowl parties, a sensitive point for me as a Seattle Seahawks fan:

[I]f most of us believe that enough other people think we should attend a Super Bowl party, even if we don’t want to go, we might all attend a party that none of us enjoy. Most of us don’t want to go, but we believe that other people think we should go. Norms create expectations, and most of us want to stick to norms that we think other people endorse, even if (unknown to us) most people don’t endorse the norm and would prefer to switch to a new norm.

But everyone wants to go to a Super Bowl party, especially if the Seahawks are playing, don’t they?

Another, more serious illustration recalls how Google fired James Damore. Anomaly notes that “the view he [Damore] questioned is that men and women are identical in both abilities and interests, and that sexism alone can explain why Google hires more men than women.” Then, he points out that the majority of employees at Google think Damore shouldn’t have been fired. Leaving aside the question of whether this was necessarily a contradiction (the majority may or may not contain supervisors), he is correct – it is sometimes often the powerful few, in this case Google’s management, who control what happens, and how an argument is resolved. The case was decided not on its merits, but by fiat.

I don’t share Anomaly’s views on several examples he offers, but this overall point is true:

The logic of collective action is that when the costs of expressing a belief are borne by the individual, but the benefits are shared among all members of an epistemic community, it is perfectly rational to fail to reveal our beliefs about that topic, no matter how justified they might be.

Regarding the origins of the universe, of life, and of mankind, we see strong bias against following the evidence where it leads.

Anomaly notes, “Science is the best method we have for understanding the world. But to the extent that its success requires a willingness to entertain ideas that conflict with our deepest desires, scientific progress on politically contentious topics tends to be slow.”

The opposition we encounter to entertaining evidence supporting intelligent design is not necessarily driven by hard scientific data. Instead, I think it is driven by politics and groupthink in the scientific community.

So the next time you hear that there is a scientific consensus on evolution, be prepared to push back. Ask what that “consensus” is based on. The evidence? Or something else?

Image credit: geralt, via Pixabay.